How should Christians respond to times of suffering?
Thankfully, we are able to develop means of alleviating human suffering. Our nations are putting vast resources into trying to find an antidote to the virus. That is altogether appropriate and Christ-like because He sought to alleviate suffering. We also know that He didn’t alleviate everybody’s suffering. There is a complexity to the way in which God works that is beyond us, but it is appropriate that we make use of means to alleviate suffering instead of just saying, “God sent and God will get rid of it.” We don’t respond to anything in our lives with that kind of foolish simplicity.
The second thing to say, from a biblical point of view, is that all suffering we experience exposes (1) our frailty, (2) our need of God, (3) the sinfulness of our human condition, and (4) our need for repentance. Think, for example, of what Jesus says in Luke 13 when people come and say: “What about these people that Pilate slaughtered? Were they worse than others? What about those on whom the tower fell?” I’m sure this is a question that some people will ask. The application Jesus makes is not to say that we should try to work out who is responsible for this. Rather, it is a call to repentance.
The pattern all the way through Scripture for this kind of event in a nation—or now on the face of the earth—is that the need for us to repent is coded into this language of cosmic affliction. In the midst of all the suffering, the great issue for us in the West is whether we will heed that call. It was very interesting after 9/11. As far as I could tell from a distance, churches were filled with people expressing their sense of need, but that dissipated very quickly.
The call for the church is that there will be a genuine spirit of repentance borne in us out of this; a recognition that we thought we were masters of the universe, yet here’s some invisible, infinitesimal something that has mastered the earth at the moment and produced fear. That’s such a clarion call to us to return to the Lord. People may say, “I’ll never be the same again after this.” The danger is that we will be exactly the same after it.
Reflecting on the plague of locusts at the time of Joel’s prophecy (Joel 1), the pattern there is a summons to repent, to turn back to the Lord. Interestingly, it’s exactly in Joel that we get the great promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28–29), which must have had an application to the people in his time, just as it clearly had a significant application on the day of Pentecost.
So, we seek to relieve suffering, we pray for a baptism of repentance, and we look to the Lord to send His Holy Spirit to bring conversion, awakening, and revival in the church.
This is a transcript of Sinclair Ferguson’s answer from the Pastoral Care in Times of Crisis panel discussion during our Made in the Image of God event and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, just visit Ask.Ligonier.org or message us on Facebook or Twitter.